The Historical Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Created | Updated Sep 23, 2019
Barsoom | Pellucidar | Moon | Venus | Caspak | Historical
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was the American novelist who created Tarzan, who has been called the 20th Century's most popular literary character1. He is also well known for his science fiction stories, including several set on Mars, five set on Venus and many more are set in lost worlds that time forgot on Earth. Yet Burroughs also wrote two often-overlooked historical novels.
Burroughs wrote 91 novels during his lifetime. This period was before paperback books were available. The publication of hardback books was reserved for prestigious works as well as a few novels expected to sell well. All other works were published in pulp magazines that were released weekly, fortnightly (often called 'biweekly') or monthly, depending on the individual magazine. As well as publishing short stories, they serialised longer works of novel length across several issues.
Both his second novel, The Outlaw of Torn, and his penultimate novel, I Am A Barbarian, have a historical setting. They both contain a hero descended from royalty living in reduced circumstances, raised and manipulated by the villain. They also can be seen as intriguing bookends to his literary career and show how his skill and style had changed over time.
The Outlaw of Torn (1914, 1927)
I think it is the best thing I ever wrote, with the possible exception of 'Tarzan of the Apes'
- Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Outlaw of Torn was written in 1911, immediately after Burroughs' wrote his first story A Princess of Mars (which was initially serialised as Under the Moons of Mars in All-Story Magazine in 1912). Thomas Metcalf, the editor of All-Story, impressed with the sword scenes in A Princess of Mars, suggested Burroughs write a historical novel full of swordplay, in the same vein as the works of Sir Walter Scott. The Outlaw of Torn was the result, initially written in just 17 days.
When Burroughs submitted the story, Metcalf informed him that The Outlaw of Torn, though it had a strong plot, did not have the same level of historical detail or live up to the standard of the work of Sir Walter Scott. Considering Scott is possibly Scotland's greatest ever author and this was only Burroughs' second work, this comparison seems unfair. Metcalf rejected it, writing to Burroughs in November 1911 that there was not enough pageantry, the villain was not in the story enough and that he thought the heroine should become a nun.
Burroughs resubmitted it in February 1912, expanding the story, although the love interest remained unencumbered with the inconvenience of a convent. Again it was rejected but Metcalf offered to buy the story idea for $100 and have one of his staff writers completely rewrite it, though Burroughs would retain a co-author credit. Burroughs rejected this and put the story to one side while he finished his third story, Tarzan of the Apes. Burroughs wrote:
When I finished ['Tarzan of the Apes'] I knew that it was not as good a story as 'The Outlaw of Torn', and that, therefore, it would not sell.
His fears were unfounded as Tarzan of the Apes was snapped up. While awaiting its publication, Burroughs expanded The Outlaw of Torn once more and resubmitted it to Metcalf, who rejected it once more. When Tarzan of the Apes was published, it was an instant, huge success. Burroughs' new credibility allowed him to sell The Outlaw of Torn to New Story magazine for $1,000 where it was serialised in the January to May 1914 issues.
In the 1920s, Burroughs began republishing many of his earlier stories as novels. In late 1926 he dedicated The Outlaw of Torn 'To My Friend Joseph E Bray', president of publishers AC McClurg & Company, and asked him to publish the story as a novel. The strategy of dedicating the story to the publisher worked, although Burroughs being a household name doubtlessly helped too. The novel was published in February 1927 and a month later all 5,000 copies had been sold. Throughout the 1930s Burroughs tried to sell the film rights, to no success. In 2011 the story was adapted into comic form, under the title The Outlaw Prince.
If you would like to read a historical romp with echoes of Ivanhoe, The Prince and the Pauper and Robin Hood, then The Outlaw of Torn is well worth a go.
As with many of Burroughs' tales the story, though fictional, is presented as depicting real events. It is supposedly based on a lost historical text that had been suppressed by one of the Plantagenet kings. The story is set between June 1243 and 1264. It begins when, angered by the defiant Simon de Montfort, Duke of Leicester, King Henry III2spits on and insults his French master of fence, Sir Jules de Vac, the greatest swordsman in the world. Swearing revenge, de Vac kidnaps the king's (fictional) second son, the toddler Prince Richard, who has a distinctive lily-shaped birthmark on his shoulder.
De Vac raises Richard as his own son at his hiding place at the decrepit Torn Castle. Giving him the name Norman of Torn, de Vac teaches him a fanatical hatred of King Henry and all Englishmen, and trains him to become the ultimate warrior. As he grows into a young man, Norman is encouraged to waylay and attack everyone he comes into contact with and become the most-feared outlaw in England. De Vac plans that Norman will become infamous, eventually be caught, and be hung as a common outlaw. De Vac will then reveal that Norman was the missing prince and thus avenge the insult.
By the age of 20 Norman is the greatest swordsman in England. There is a price on his head and he is leading a band of a thousand hardened warriors, but he has been trained to always wear his helmet and let no-one see his face. Yet his innate royal heritage is beginning to assert itself. As he becomes older and thinks for himself, rather than simply following the lead of the man that he calls father, his behaviour becomes increasingly chivalrous. Which side will win, his innate noble nature or the nauseating nurture?
While his appetite for war is insatiable, his head begins questioning why he is fighting, and perhaps his heart will sway his final decision when he rescues a damsel in distress, Bertrude de Montfort, Simon's fictional daughter, who is being abducted by Peter of Colfax. Not wanting her to know his true identity, he calls himself Roger de Condé. He falls in love with her, while she is surprised that he looks identical to Prince Edward. He feels unable to pursue his love as he believes himself to be of common birth as well as being an outlaw who has committed terrible acts in the past, and so not a suitable match for the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the country.
The story comes to a climax during the Barons' War (1263-65). King Henry III is fighting Simon de Montfort. With a thousand men at his command, which side will Norman take at the decisive Battle of Lewes? Will Simon de Montfort tell his daughter, 'Get thee to a nunnery!'? Will de Vac have his revenge and arrange for King Henry to watch his son die?
The Outlaw of Torn is a highly imaginative tale whose weakest point is perhaps its title, which does not really convey what the story is about. Many of Burroughs' staple plot points are present including the strong-willed damsel, heroic hero, villainous villain and swashbuckling swordplay. In essence it is good-natured escapism at its best. Though not as good as the work of Sir Walter Scott, that is as valid a criticism as comparing any playwright to Shakespeare. True, it may not be as historically accurate and the characters are not as complex, but it is a solidly enjoyable romp.
Chapter V features a Lord Greystoke, an ancestor of Tarzan. Even as early as his second novel, Burroughs is beginning to include cheeky references to his other works to bind them all together.
Burroughs throughout his career was obsessed with the idea of heredity. This can be seen most clearly in Tarzan of the Apes in which Tarzan, through being of noble birth, naturally becomes the superior force in the jungle. Heredity is briefly touched upon in this tale - as Norman is of royal descent, he has a regal bearing.
The novel is a joy to read, although Burroughs does use several very long sentences. For example, after Bertrude has refused to marry Peter of Colfax, Peter is described with this single sentence:
Her first words had caused the red of humiliation to mottle his already ruby visage to a semblance of purple, and now, as he attempted to rise with dignity he was still further covered with confusion by the fact that his huge stomach made it necessary for him to go upon all fours before he could rise, so that he got up much after the manner of a cow, raising his stern high in a most ludicrous fashion.
Lost Words and Lost Worlds
Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950. Throughout the following decade, the publishing company ERB Inc (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc) stopped publishing the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, feeling his writings were an unnecessary distraction from the far more lucrative business of licensing Tarzan merchandise, comics and films. Meanwhile, the publishing industry had changed, with paperback books being both cheap to print and buy.
In 1957, the small company Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications realised that two of Burroughs' lesser-known works, The Man–Eater and Beyond Thirty were out of copyright and, after attempts to contact ERB Inc were ignored, successfully published them. This led to a mistaken belief that many more of Burroughs' works were out of copyright. By 1962, Canaveral Press began reprinting Burroughs' works in hardback while Ace Books, Ballantine and Dover Books began publishing them in paperback, to great success. Between 1962 and 1968, over 50 million copies of Burroughs' stories were sold.
As interest in Burroughs' writings grew, ERB Inc reasserted their rights through various copyright lawsuits. In 1963 Burroughs' agent Cyril Ralph Rothmund, who had for years insisted that everything that Burroughs' had written had been published, retired. ERB Inc became controlled by Burroughs' children: Hulbert Burroughs, John Coleman Burroughs and Joan Burroughs Pierce. Following an inventory of their father's office they discovered several previously-unpublished manuscripts totalling over 500,000 words. One of these was I Am a Barbarian, a novel written in 1941 but not published until 1967. ERB Inc's first release since Llana of Gathol in 1948, it was initially published as a limited edition hardback and has since been published in paperback.
I Am A Barbarian (1967)
By the late 1930s Burroughs had become a victim of his own success. His legion of fans demanded increasingly formulaic and repetitive sequels, leaving him unable to stop writing about Tarzan, his most successful character. I Am A Barbarian was Burroughs' last completed attempt to write something new, only for the novel to be abandoned and unpublished in his lifetime.
Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I Am A Barbarian was the author's attempt to write a novel inspired by Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian (1932-36) series. In fact, I Am A Barbarian is even more closely based on a historical novel by an acclaimed author than The Outlaw of Torn was. Channelling Robert Graves' classic I, Claudius (1934), I Am A Barbarian is essentially I, Barbarian in all-but-name, telling the tale of almost exactly the same era but from the viewpoint of a 'barbarian' or slave.
I Am A Barbarian was written between April and September 19413. Following the manuscript's completion, Burroughs went to Hawaii where, on 7 December, 1941 he witnessed first-hand the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Burroughs immediately stopped writing fiction and, despite being in his late 60s, volunteered to be a war correspondent for United Press. The oldest correspondent in the Pacific theatre, he served until being invalided out of the service and was 70 before the war ended.
Views are very much divided on I Am A Barbarian. While the narrative is one of the strongest that Burroughs ever wrote, the actual plot is very predictable and closely follows the events described by Suetonius' The Twelve Cæsars (121 AD) as well as I, Claudius. This means anyone with a basic knowledge of this era of Roman history is able to join the dots and see the overall picture long before the last page. This, though, applies to many historical novels.
I then dedicated my life to one purpose – vengeance. Someday I would kill a Cæsar.
- I Am a Barbarian
As with much of Burroughs' work, the story is presented as a true text - Burroughs has merely translated it from the original Latin. It claims to have been written by Britannicus, the titular 'Barbarian', and dedicated to his son Numerius Tiber Britannicus. It tells the life story of Britannicus Caligulae Servus from 769 AUC4 (16 AD) to 794 AUC (41 AD). Britannicus is the great-grandson of Cingetorix, King of Kent, and the Briton slave of four-year-old Gaius Caligula (12 - 41 AD). Caligula begins as the sixth in line to the throne during the reign of Tiberius but later ascends to become Emperor. After Britannicus sees his parents murdered, he swears revenge.
The novel shows Caligula's family, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from a slave's perspective. Caligula's mother, Agrippina, as a member of the Julian family, claims descent from Venus and is described as terrible, proud, arrogant, dictatorial, jealous and cruel. His father, Germanicus, is a good soul, kindly and generous but weak, ineffective and unfit to command. Among the Romans, only Tiberius and Claudius are portrayed in a positive light. When Germanicus dies, Agrippina blames Tiberius and launches a highly effective smear campaign against him to besmirch his reputation, while Tiberius' advisor Sejanus schemes against Tiberius' heirs so that he can claim the throne, until only Caligula and Claudius are left.
Britannicus' friends are Tibur, a gladiator who won his freedom and became Caligula's bodyguard, and Numerius, a champion chariot driver. Attica, a slave of Cæsonia5, leads both Numerius and Britannicus on and claims she loves them both equally.
Who will Attica marry? Is Caligula the biggest monster ever described by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Will Britannicus get his vengeance, in this life or the next?
Though set in Ancient Rome, I Am A Barbarian is very much influenced by contemporary events. In Tarzan at the Earth's Core (1930), written during the years of the Weimar Republic, the heroic crew of the airship are German. However I Am A Barbarian was written during the Second World War. The German tribes are portrayed as lice-infested brutes and the hero hates almost every Roman he encounters with only two exceptions (Tiberius and Claudius).
The hero, as well as being Caligula's personal slave, also becomes an experienced and talented chariot racer. This seems unlikely but is undoubtedly inspired by the success of Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ (1880) by Lew Wallace, which is set around the same time period.
There are frequent minor distractions that take readers out of the period the story is set in. The main characters talk using American expressions and phrases from the 1940s, with the heroes embodying 1940s American values and perspectives. Yet this weakness also ensures that it is easy to read by its intended audience.
Although Burroughs is famed for having his male heroes stab and slaughter countless enemies while his heroines tend to wear clothes no larger than swimming costumes, his books contain almost no sex. Star-crossed lovers spend their time misinterpreting each other's intentions or holding hands, possibly briefly kissing in particularly racy scenes, while villains plan on kidnapping the heroine with the intention of entering into an arranged marriage. This approach does not suit Caligula, who is known throughout history for depraved daily debauchery with bisexual orgies and incest commonplace. This is extremely watered down in the novel. Burroughs only hints at homosexuality and the most he is prepared to say is:
Never, since puberty, had [Caligula] been able to do without women, and after his association with Herod Agrippa he had given increasing attention to young boys.
I Am A Barbarian hinges on the audience's revulsion and hatred towards Caligula, the real barbarian of the title. The hero witnesses events rather than causes them, and only takes action at the very end to seek vengeance for Caligula's acts against the love of his life. Yet Burroughs is left utterly incapable of even suggesting the occurrence of rape or violence towards women when the narrative depends on it, although the act itself is unseen by the main character. This means that the plot builds up to a climactic crescendo that the self-censoring Burroughs backs away from and tries to avoid.